Figuring Out Where You Want To Land After Graduate School

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.

If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.

My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.

The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy

A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).

I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”

It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.

Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.

Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.

What If You Don’t Have A Clue?

In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?

During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.

I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.

Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.

And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.

My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.

Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.

Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)

Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.

Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.

And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.

Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 2)

Source: PHD Comics

Image source: PHD Comics.

This anonymous guest post is the second of a two-part essay in which the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, and offers suggestions to improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the first part of their essay here!

Stuck In The Past (Part II)

Welcome back! In the first part of this essay, I examined three fundamental aspects of graduate education that seem flawed or lacking in my experience (comprehensive exams, funding, and teaching assistantships). However, there is another side of academic life that begins in graduate school, and if the student is not firmly grounded in these practices, their career and well-being as professionals will suffer. Professional academic work in the university is focused on research and writing, carrying equal or more weight than teaching (in too many cases) with tenure committees or administrators.

While graduate seminars hone critical reading, writing, and research skills, neither of the graduate programs I attended provided adequate guidance on other aspects of being a scholar, such as writing conference proposals and papers, and writing and submitting articles to journals for publication. In this second post, I provide some thoughts on another three issues: preparation for being a “scholar” or professional academic, interdisciplinary research, and post-PhD employment.

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Scholarly Preparation

I imagine there are many ways to address the broad notion of “scholarly preparation,” and I understand that it varies by academic discipline, as well as the size and resources of a given department.

First, departments could encourage (or require) graduate students to participate in an academic writing group. Students would bring anything from course writing assignments to pieces of a dissertation for critique. Faculty would participate on a rotating basis, participating either for a semester at a time, or on a rotating basis of one faculty member present at each meeting of the group. A third option is to have a series of workshops over the course of a couple of months. The workshop series would be held at least once per academic year, but preferably once per semester. In addition to training students how to prepare their written work for publication, students would also have the opportunity to learn how to interact in a critical-yet-respectful way with their peers.

Another approach would be to offer this topic as a course once a year and require all graduate students to take it before starting work on their dissertation. This should be a practical, hands-on course following a weekly plan similar to what Wendy Belcher suggests. The outcome should be a paper revised for submission to a journal, or a paper prepared for a conference presentation. And, in case I need to say it, this should be a course that counts towards the student’s degree, covered by tuition credits/funding, and should be taken seriously by faculty and students alike.

Faculty who are reading this may be thinking, “but I barely have enough time to eat/sleep/do research/spend time with my family as it is – I don’t need even more tasks!” I sympathize with your plight; unfortunately without addressing larger, systemic issues regarding demands on faculty time, I don’t have a recommendation that helps both grad students and faculty.

Interdisciplinarity

It is probably fair to say that the (non)availability of true interdisciplinary study on the doctoral level is a significant limitation that keeps me from pursuing another PhD program, even if I were inclined to put up with comprehensive exams, language study, limited funding, and grueling schedules. I firmly believe that methodologies and approaches beyond my “home” discipline have much to offer, especially when contemplating a project the size and length of a dissertation. Moreover, interdisciplinary study can open new avenues of research and broaden scholars’ thinking. This will also help to alleviate the hyper-specialization that has taken over many academic fields. One of the reasons I have never felt completely at home in academia is the pressure to specialize, and to identify just one (often tiny) research area.

(With that simple paragraph I worry I have given myself away, as I have rarely encountered other academics with the same feelings of being constrained.)

The “easiest” fix for this is to have established accommodations for students interested in cross-disciplinary research. This could be along the lines of allowing credits from coursework in another discipline to count towards the total number of credit hours a student needs to complete, or adjusting degree requirements on a case-by-case basis to tailor degree requirements to the student’s research needs.

Encouraging students to increasingly narrow their focus of research is interesting in the short term. But, has anyone wondered about how that affects the student’s ability to teach and craft new research projects in the long term?

The Elephant in the Room: Post-PhD Employment Opportunities

Finally, I can’t ignore the depressing statistics regarding the chances of academic employment once a student has successfully obtained a PhD. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a major reason why I am disinclined to consider another doctoral program. The financial burden of additional graduate study, and a severe lack of programs that fit my criteria are certainly primary concerns. But, the knowledge that I am unlikely to find a tenure track job on the other end makes everything else seem insignificant in comparison. Why take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a degree that won’t give you a reasonable chance of getting an academic job?

PhD program veterans like Jennifer Polk are advocating for PhDs to consider non-academic jobs as a viable career path, which has potential for disillusioned or under-employed academics. It also highlights that academics, with or without a PhD, have skills that can be applied beyond academia. This mentality should be incorporated into all graduate programs and career counseling: here’s what your degree will do for you if you stay in higher education, and here are some career paths that make use of critical thinking, researching, writing, and instruction skills. Programs are currently in the awkward spot of needing students to justify their existence, while knowing that only a small percentage of PhDs will be able to find tenured jobs. I can’t say that knowing my chances of getting hired would be 1 in 100 (to pick a number) would have discouraged me from applying to graduate school. However, I think the departments must take more responsibility for making students aware of the realities of their academic career opportunities.

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The problems that I have identified in these two posts are but a few of the challenges facing higher education right now. Large-scale solutions are required, and the suggestions I’ve offered above are patches to the existing system rather than substantial fixes to the overall problem. I’ve often wondered what my ideal PhD program would look like if I could design a model that doesn’t conform to the standard coursework-exams-dissertation template.

How would you change the PhD process if you could? What’s your ideal?

Reflections On Pursuing A Non-Traditional Academic Career

Chris WhiteDr. Christopher White is one of a growing number of academics who have pursued an alternative academic career (or “Alt-Ac“).  In this guest blog post, he reflects on the uncertainty and self-doubt, as well as the joys and triumphs, that he has experienced in defining his academic career on his own terms.  See Dr. White’s full biography at the end.

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I’m Such A Loser (But My Life Is Fucking Fantastic!)

For the past decade or so, I have spent the first weekend of every November at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS – pronounced “quad ess”), a place that has become my academic home complete with a wonderful group of friends who have become a family of sorts for me. It has become one of the most important events of the year for me because it is not only a time for me to learn about the latest work in the field, but also a time to recharge through the love and camaraderie of some of my closest friends.

In a sense, all of us “grew up” together professionally, regardless of our ages. I met most of these folks while we were in graduate school or shortly thereafter as “young professionals.” Over the years, I’ve watched these men and women transition from graduate assistants to junior faculty to settling into their tenured positions. At SSSS, we served the organization as student leaders, on various committees, and most recently we all filled or are currently filling various roles on the Board of Directors. I’m sure that we will continue to do so and will eventually move into the “elder” categories of “past presidents” and such – but let’s rush anything. We’re still relatively young… I think.

Earlier this month, we joyfully gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, spent time catching up over too many cocktails, laughed, maybe even cried, and shared out latest successes and frustrations. I felt incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing, bright, and supportive friends, as I always do when we’re together. This year, though, I felt something else – sadness, envy, and jealousy. It bubbled up in moments when I heard about someone’s latest achievement – a published book, tenure, and new grant award. I wasn’t unhappy for them, quite the opposite. But I felt the creep of self-disappointment, self-criticism, and whole heckuva lot of self-doubt.

 “I’m a failure.”

 “I’m not as smart as these people are.”

 “I’ve accomplished so little.”

 “What have I done with my life?”

 “I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda…”

You see, after I completed my PhD, I made the decision not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia. I moved against the stream and chose a job, no, a career that was not “on track” with what I was supposed to do. I consciously made this decision. I wasn’t interested in the game, the scam – the seemingly never-ending treadmill of writing stuff that no one was going to read to impress the right people into giving me a permanent job with “academic freedom” – whatever the hell that really means. At least, I think I consciously made that decision.

Half-Assed Job Searches And Knowing People

The truth is that I spent a year applying for academic positions right before and after graduation. I got a few nibbles, but the big one always eluded me. I had set parameters that made it difficult for me to land the type of job that I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have followed the advice of my mentors and done more quantitative work, toned down the sexuality stuff, amped up the health education work, and applied for jobs at smaller universities in Podunk towns.

Instead, I pushed my qualitative research agenda and only applied for jobs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, I said, “fuck you and fuck the capitalist system of academics and research.” I was a rebel and was going to do things my way… yeah, that’s it.

Then I got a call from a “prestigious” academic in San Francisco. He’d heard about me from a grad school peer of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him at his center. No academic appointment, no tenure-track, just a job. I said yes.

Let’s fast-forward about seven years. I am the director of a CDC-funded project at a youth-focused, LGBTQ organization. I’m adjunct faculty at three universities and enjoy teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. And I feel like a complete failure – at least, I did a couple of weeks ago when I returned from the SSSS conference in Omaha.

Hearing my friends’ stories about being awarded tenure or about their latest publication made me feel like a complete loser. I’m happy for them, and I want them to be successful. At the same time, with each success that I heard about, a voice in my head said, “You made the wrong decision. You are a loser.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Leave me alone. Go away,” I screamed silently to that other me. The doubter. The critique.

Wait A Second…What’s That Smell?

Then something happened. I got on a plane and flew to New York City to attend a training of health teachers and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors and to meet with NYC Department of Education staff. I spent two days talking about the work they are doing to support not only LGBTQ-youth, but all marginalized young people, and looking for opportunities to support and grow their work. Then I went to Boston and did the same thing there. Next, I talked to some colleagues about a conference we’re organizing to work with 20+ school districts across the US to do the same. And I realized something… I’m really fucking lucky to get to be part of something so amazing, so life-changing for so many people.

So, I may not be getting that letter from the Dean saying that I’ve been awarded tenure, and I may not have my face on the back of a book jacket (yet!). But I am working on an important project, which was funded because of a proposal that I wrote. I travel around the US to major cities and talk to high-ranking school district officials about LGBTQ youth. I get the privilege of training teachers on how to make their lessons and their schools LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly. AND, I get to teach classes, and hear from students that my courses made a difference in their lives. On top of that, I make a decent living and can afford a fairly nice life. Oh my god, wait, the fuck, I AM successful – although writing that makes me feel foolish, but fuck it.

So maybe I’ve lied to myself a little bit about why I chose not to go the traditional/expected route after I finished my PhD. I still got to where I need to be… and I’m not done, yet.

If anyone reading this is questioning their decisions or considering doing something other than what they are “supposed” to do, my advice to you is to find a way to make your career what you want it to be – maybe that’s tenure, or maybe that’s hodgepodging the job you want. Whatever it is, celebrate your friends’ successes, and don’t forget to celebrate your own.

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Biography

Christopher White, PhD, is the Director of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco.  He teaches courses in health education and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and occasionally at Widener University in Chester, PA.  His primary interests are in developing LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, creating supportive schools for LGBTQ students, and promoting gay and bisexual men’s sexual health and well-being. When he’s not working he can often be found “werq-ing” it on stage as his drag persona, “Crissy Fields,” or performing with the dance troupe, Sexitude, as “Daddy Sparkles.” Chris is working on becoming a BodyPump instructor, a health coach, and is an avid cyclist – he’ll be riding in his third AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles from SF to LA) in June 2015. Got a question or suggestion for Dr. White?  Drop him a line at christopherwhitephd [at] gmail [dot] com.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. IV)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is the fourth and final installment of my blog post series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  In this series, I’ve written about the alt-ac options in my main field, folklore studies (see Part I); the process I’ve undergone of recognizing that maybe I want to step back from academia (see Part II); and the “trying on” of this new identity at a conference (see Part III).

Now I’ve gotten to the point where stepping back to gain some distance from and perspective on academia has seemed like a great idea, even if it’s only for this summer. But where to go from here?

As far as concrete planning-for-the-future type stuff, I’m still adjuncting. I actually really like the school where I’m teaching now, but I don’t like the fact that I’m stuck with the adjunct pay scale, lack of benefits, and inability to plan beyond one semester ahead. But, I’m not taking on a huge course load, so I’ve got time to explore other things that I want to do with my life, potentially as career options. I plan to do more writing, and to build a business as a sex educator. I’m already doing informal relationship and sexuality counseling among my peer group, and teaching gender studies classes on related topics. Might as well give it a go and see if I can get paid to do it, right? Plus it’s the kind of career that I can do as part-time as I want while I’ve got other things on my plate, since it seems to involve a lot of freelancing and getting my own gigs.

I’m in the rare and fortunate position of not needing to be the breadwinner in my household at the moment, so I have more freedom than most adjuncts to poke around and figure out what I want to do with my time (for which I am grateful, very very grateful). I don’t see myself not working for long periods of time. I’m taking on paid writing jobs this summer, despite needing a lot of downtime to recover from near-burnout. But, I want to choose a potential next career with intention and clarity – and that can take time.

Additionally, since I know that I’m luckier than many adjuncts who struggle to make ends meet, or other folks on the post/alt-ac spectrum who don’t have a lot of leeway between ditching the ivory tower and needing another income source, I want to do a little more volunteering. You know, give back to the world, improve my community. Thanks to a Twitter conversation with Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) of From PhD to Life, I determined that as much as I make myself out to be a cranky introvert who retreats as often as possible to her hermit-cave, I have a deep need to connect. I need my work to make meaningful contributions to my larger community, not just my academic community. Sex education gives me the chance to do that, especially since I plan to take on some volunteer gigs, both to gain experience in this profession, and because there are a lot of people who really need accurate, thorough sex and relationship education, even as adults.

I don’t anticipate that this will all be smooth sailing, though. Even if I’m starting to deal more healthily with the emotional fall-out of an unexpected career change that felt like a failure, I’m sure there are plenty of struggles ahead. For one thing, my career trajectory involves writing, and that means facing a lot of potential rejections. I’m still working through what my time seeking academic employment means and whether there was anything I could’ve done better or differently to get a job (imposter syndrome, anyone?). And, I worry that a thoughtless or judgmental word from a colleague could send me reeling. I’m still not sure what this makes me (post-ac? alt-ac? something-else-ac?) and how it’ll influence my relationship with academia in the future.

A lot of my thinking is, unfortunately, cyclical. I hope that I’m not shooting myself in the foot by publishing this kind of blog post online, under my real name. But, would I really want to work for an institution that doesn’t want honesty or critical awareness from its employees? If a university wants someone working for them who’s never questioned academic politics, they’re going to end up with someone who’s naïve, dishonest, or perhaps both.

Another instance of cyclical thinking is that if I’m not feeling passionate about my research right now, I should put it down and come back to it when I’m feeling recharged. But, is walking away for a time going to reinforce feelings of not belonging, and cause me to feel more disconnected? I worry that the more time I spend disengaged from academia, the less I’ll want to return to it, and that’s a bundle of mixed emotions right there, even if I just spent this blog post series establishing that I don’t know if I want to be on the academic career track I’d started out on a decade-plus ago.

I’m no stranger to the cyclical “if they don’t want me, I’m not a good fit for them” line of thought. I’m an outspoken feminist who works on various gender and sexuality topics that some people find off-putting. There are probably some workplace cultures – both academic and not – where I wouldn’t be welcome, whether because I’m a woman, or because I work on these various gender and sexuality topics, or both. I try not to be too in-your-face in talking about sex and, of course, I keep this kind of discourse professional, but there are still places where that’s taboo. And I don’t want to have to hide such a huge facet of my identity or my interests just for the sake of fitting in.

So…that’s where I am. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me reach a point where I feel I can step back from a career path that hasn’t been working for me, despite the fact that it’s really scary to do so. My husband, my family, and my dance community have been especially awesome, not only for supporting me through this tough journey, but also giving me constant, joyful reminders that there’s more to life than having my nose stuck in a book.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. III)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part III of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I and Part II). With all the processing I’d done to reach the point where I felt somewhat comfortable stating “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore,” and all of the specific ways in which my field can accommodate alt-ac work, I set out to try on this new identity at a conference.

Luckily, I picked a pretty fitting conference at which to do so: the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Since I got roped into going by a bunch of fellow grad students at Indiana University a number of years ago, I’ve been a regular attendee at this conference on sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comics, film, fandom, the visual arts, and practically any other aspects of the fantastic mode that exists. And it’s truly an international conference; I see some of my favorite Scandinavians there.

In addition to ICFA being a conference where I feel as though I’m coming home each year I attend, it’s particularly well-suited to these kinds of post-ac/alt-ac conversations. While it’s an academic conference, wherein presentation submissions are refereed before being admitted, it’s not just professors and grad students in attendance. Many of the presenters are alt-ac in some sense, whether they’re trained in a different field than the conference theme, or actually employed outside the academia but attending to do the scholarship they love. The fields of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror studies are interdisciplinary, and have always had elements of a fan participation. And at ICFA, we have a number of guest artists, authors, and editors in attendance. Their presence as participants in the media we study makes for rich and lively discussions, as well as a conference program that includes more than just scholarly presentations. I got to meet author China Miéville and ask him about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, for instance, which was wonderful and fascinating.

I decided that ICFA was the perfect place for a soft coming-out for two reasons: I’m comfortable there, having attended for nearly a decade and built so many friendships and collegial relationships there, and it’s already a mixed group of academics in varying relationships to institutions as well as non-academics. That, and the processing of my academic angst had reached critical mass by the time the conference occurred, and I really wanted to talk to people about it. I felt ready to start moving in a new direction or three, and I needed to know whether all of my colleagues would suddenly hate me. The fact that fantasy studies isn’t my main field, though it overlaps with folklore studies in some areas, particularly areas in which I work, would also soften the blow if things went poorly.

Upon arriving at ICFA this past March, I told everyone whom I talked to that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a professor anymore. Depending on how long I’d known someone, and whether it was looking to be a brief “get to know you” conversation or a “let’s talk for ages” conversation, I went into varying amounts of detail about my reasons for reaching this decision. I outlined some of my plans for the future and asked for feedback where appropriate.

The experience was wonderful overall. Everyone was very supportive and encouraging. Most of the folks I talked to knew of the troubles with the academic job market, and it was interesting comparing notes with my colleagues from other countries. I had to fill them in on some of the specifics of our job market and, in turn, I got to learn about some of the reasons things are difficult in other places.

No one berated me for my choices or my experiences. But, I did get a few of those annoying “just hang in there” talks, which I guess are meant to be helpful, but miss the point that one can only “hang in” so much when one is struggling on various levels, including emotional and financial.

I found a lot of solidarity with people who are in similarly liminal situations, regardless of whether they had an academic career in mind. For instance, I talked to Kathryn Allen, who blogs at Bleeding Chrome (check out this great post on embracing ambition after a PhD), and she was really understanding and wonderful when listening to me rant about my career-shift ideas. And there are others whom I won’t name because not everyone’s out about their various career moves… but you all are awesome. Our poolside chats and discussions over drinks made me feel accepted, loved, and as though I am not alone in this struggle.

Getting to “try on” the new identity of post/alt/whatever-ac was a transformative experience for me. It demonstrated that people whose ideas and work that I respect still find value in me even when I am distancing myself from the institution and career that we’re all indoctrinated to venerate above all else. My precarity wasn’t seen as a personal failing, nor as a factor in evaluating the worth of my ideas.

I was a bit worried about whether I’d get very emotional about this topic (since my career angst has been tugging at my heart for a couple of years now), but things went pretty smoothly during the conference. I might’ve also been envisioning my time at ICFA as though I were playing a new character in a role-playing game, but that’s not terribly out there given the content of the conference. So I’ll go ahead and call it a success. (of course, it helped that I had a successful conference on a professional level, too, receiving many compliments on the research I presented and chairing a session that went wonderfully)

Tune in next week for the final post in this blog post series, which will address the “what now?” of coming to terms with the “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” experience.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. I)

Last week, Dr. Jeana Jorgensen officially joined the Conditionally Accepted blogging staff, moving from guest blogger to regular contributor.  Below, Jeana offers the first installment of her four-part blog series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  Tune in next week for Part II.

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I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is a multi-part blog post chronicling my journey from “ac” to alt-ac or post-ac, wherever I’m at right now in my tenuous relationship to academia. I find writing therapeutic, and I also hope that others will benefit from seeing me work through some of the personal issues accompanying the structural ones that plague us as professional scholars.

“But wait,” you might be saying to yourself while reading this account: “Jeana is a folklorist – and haven’t folklorists always had options outside the academy?” Yes, we have… but I’m not trained for them, and I don’t want to do them anyway.

First I’d like to note that I’m not just telling this story because it helps situate my own trajectory as a post/alt/whatever-ac person. I feel as though it’s important to lend a perspective to the alt-ac and post-ac conversation beyond the standard narrative of “I got my PhD in XYZ prominent/established field and was unable to get a job as a professor, so I’m leaving.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that narrative is an important one, too, and very relatable for many. I get a lot out of reading quit-lit and related genres of academic blogging. I’ve found solace in their structural critiques, their practical advice, and their rage. The multiple metaphors of academia being a bad relationship that is hard to end or a cult, or an addiction, have also resonated with me. I’ve forwarded many of these links to friends and family members so that they can gain a little more insight into what I’m going through. So I’m definitely not knocking this narrative; I just want to add some nuance based on another field’s specific issues.

So, a brief history lesson: the discipline of folklore studies (or folkloristics) had its inception in Romantic-era Europe. The Grimm brothers and their contemporaries in other countries hopped on board the nationalistic agenda sweeping Europe at the time, hoping to demonstrate links between the various folk cultures, languages, and histories of Europe. Folklore studies scholars have always had close ties with philology, linguistics, anthropology, and religious studies. In fact, the American Folklore Society was founded in 1888, making it the elder sibling to American anthropology (the AAA was founded in 1902). While you used to find folklorists at lots of different universities, working on varied topics from ballads and fairy tales to foodways and folk belief, and working in various departments (since we’re super interdisciplinary), there are only a few academic folklore centers these days.

Folklorists who don’t work in standard academic positions as professors or lecturers often work in the public sector. We called this public or applied folklore. I have colleagues who work in museums, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, for city or state-level folklore councils such as the Philadelphia Folklore Project or the Brooklyn Arts Council, at archives, in libraries, and with other organizations to document and preserve cultural heritage.

I’d also like to note that the transition from ac to alt-ac in folklore studies is one that has an established path: get your MA or PhD at a university that specializes in public folklore, and then get to it. Other people fall into public folklore jobs without the academic training for it. My field can be a bit more porous than most. But, this is not to detract from its academic rigor, but rather to acknowledge that, as in any field with a more activist or applied branch, you’re going to find people who got sucked into the work and learned the theoretical/academic side of things through practical experience rather than an academic program.

In theory I could, with my academic folklore background, apply to public folklore jobs, and use my knowledge of the field to start acquiring the various skills and competencies I’d need for the job. I’d need to make up for lost time in some ways, but I’d be ahead of the game in others.

But that work holds little appeal for me, even if it’d mean staying in my field. I’m an introvert who loathes the people-wrangling and delegating aspects of event planning. I don’t see myself excelling at applying for grants or working as part of a team to document a given tradition. While I want my scholarly work to have impact and relevance for the greater public, my methods of engagement don’t generally align with those of public folklore. It’s work that I’m glad someone’s doing, but it’s not work I want to do. (Similarly, at my blog, I dispel the falsehood that I should write children’s books with my folklore degree).

What I hope to have done in this post is to not only lay the groundwork for the remainder of my “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” blog post series, but also demonstrate how it’s possible to be alt-ac in one’s field by actually following an established career track. But it’s also possible to not want that career track, despite it being a way to stay active (and employed) in one’s field. Not every job is for everyone.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Taking A Real Summer Break

Jeana jorgensenDr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer.  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general).  Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Dr. Jorgensen has kindly shared a post from her blog, in which she declares she is taking a real summer break for the sake of her well-being.

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Summer Break (For Real)

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? Read this crowd-sourced list for some insight.)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.